You don't have to move very far beyond the confines of your own local church to discover that questions of how and why evangelicals relate to each other are rife in the UK at the moment. And even whether we should (of COURSE we should. Jesus prayed that his followers would be one).
It doesn't take long to come up against thorny issues like preferred worship styles, matters concerning the Holy Spirit or questions of leadership and gender. Nor long to meet people who assume that those who disagree with them always and necessarily hold a weak view of scripture.
It doesn't take long to find people who are clearly evangelical but who express it in some quite different ways to me, and therefore to talk past each other or find it impossible to work together simply because we spend too much time in our own silos and just don't get each other
And so it becomes easy to:
- Let intra-evangelical questions and debates become highly polarised and controlled by the most extreme voices at either end
- To up the ante on whether we should relate or separate because we find it hard to approach flashpoint issues with nuance and difficult to listen to each other where there have been histroic suspicions and wounds
- Conclude that a wide, broad unity that is genuinely evangelical and genuinely missional is a pipe dream and would take far too much time and effort out of mission and give it over pointless talk shops instead
Having worked as the Team Leader for Greater London for a large mission widely (and not entirely accurately) held to be at one end of various evangelical tribal divisions, I had the chance to experience a lot of these tensions first hand and was constantly forcved to ask the question: is it possible to bring these people together, how might that be done, can we work positively in mission together or at least speak positively about each others' ministries.
Sometimes it turned out to be possible. Sometimes, sadly, it didn't. Sometimes I was the problem.
I recently heard my friend John Risbridger explain that some of our differences can be approached and discussed constructively if we understand that there are a variety of different loci of evangelical unity:
- Relational unity - do I know and trust these people?
- Confessional unity - do these people believe the same things as me and hold the Bible in the same high regard?
- Missional unity - do I want to (will I find it possible to) participate in outreach with these people?
- Spiritual unity - do we share an understanding of how and why we relate to God and him to us? (and, less important, do we express it in mutual comprehensible and approachable ways?)
Here is the critical point: all evangelicals hold all of these with differing degrees of emphasis. If we want to relate well to each other it is critical to treat others' concerns well. I know people who say things like "if we believe the same things we are united" - regardless of whether they actually know another party or not. I know others (mostly evangelists) who think that "mission is the crucial thing. If we just do mission together we will get to know each other and the rest will sort itself out in the process." I could make the same case regarding the other loci.
But the fact is that if you want to relate to me and do things with me you are going to have to understand why certain things are crucial for me that may not be crucial for you. And I will need to do you the same courtesy. Among the wisest (and kindest) things I have had a leader say to me recently is "you seem to need this in order to participate in x. I don't feel the same need. But, hey, you need it so I will do what you need in order to help you."
That's the kind of attitude that heals, that brings together and that discovers new friends because it is not afraid to go to the other. And we could do with a lot more of it.